The Naming of John the Baptist

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 24 June 2012

Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 139:1-3, 13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80

 Today we reflect upon the birth and the naming of John the Baptist, and on the wonder of our own calling. The scene is set with a reading from one of Isaiah’s ‘Servant Songs’. It would have been in the first place autobiographical, reflecting the prophet’s own sense of identity and mission. But the faithful witness to which the prophet is called is also the calling of the people of God, and so the ‘servant’ is sometimes broadened out to refer toIsrael or to its ideal representative. In a Christian reading of this passage, the servant reflects Jesus of Nazareth and all those who are called and faithful despite opposition, such as John the Baptist.

The opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel contains two birth narratives, those of Jesus and of John the Baptist. Both births are preceded by angelic announcements, one to Zechariah and one to Mary. Zechariah’s story is very different to that of the young, humble and accepting Mary in the Annunciation. He is an old man, a priest in Jerusalem, a privileged person at the centre of power. The angel meets him while he is officiating in the temple, tells him that he will have a son and that the child is to be named ‘John’. Zechariah is skeptical and asks for a sign. He is therefore made mute until the naming of the promised baby.

I wonder why he couldn’t name his son Zechariah? Zechariah means ‘the Lord remembers’ and John means ‘the Lord is gracious’. Both names seem appropriate for the prophet who was to announce the coming of the longed-for Messiah. In those days, children were understood as the way in which one achieved a kind of immortality – one lived on through one’s children. Everyone at the naming ceremony took for granted that the child would be named for his father. But the old priest is insistent that the child not take his name. Zechariah has had a long time of silent reflection to think on the angel’s words and on the meaning of the arrival of this child. Maybe he is simply obeying the angel’s instructions, but I like to imagine that the old man has grasped the significance of the command. By giving him his own, non-family name, Zechariah is acknowledging the unique calling of this baby. This child will not live out the dreams and aspirations of his father, but will fulfil his own unique calling.

Certain special individuals in the bible are marked with a miraculous birth narrative, for others their unique calling is indicated in the fact that God names or renames them. Sometimes, like here, both elements are present. In the snippet of Paul’s homily in the reading from Acts we get a sense of the importance of John in the bigger story of the people of God. What of the rest of us, the ‘little people’? The psalm reminds us that in God’s economy no one is unimportant. Each worshipper can wonder in the knowledge that they are uniquely formed and intimately known by God. We are all gifted with our individual life and circumstances. We have no right to try to make others live our lives for us, or to try to live out someone else’s. Our calling is to serve God faithfully as the person God has created us to be.

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About Jessie Rogers

I'm a Scripture scholar and Godly Play practitioner living in Ireland.
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